Sailing Away: Boaters give boost to Port Huron before annual race

Being on the water comes naturally for Port Huron's Evan Wilkins. It was only fitting he would end up boating, and eventually sailing in one of the biggest boat races of the year--Bell's Beer Mackinaw Bayview Race, commonly known as the Port Huron to Mackinac Race.

Hundreds of boaters will set sail from the Port Huron Yacht Club, and spend about two days navigating their way north, about 200 miles to the banks of Mackinac Island. Depending on the class of the boat, racers follow a 208-mile short course, which hugs the Michigan shore; or the 254-mile longer course, which rounds a buoy near Cove Island on the Canadian side of the lake before making way toward Mackinac.

A married treasury analyst with SEMCO energy, Wilkins has completed six major boat races since June, including the Mills Trophy Race out of the Toledo Yacht Club.  Now he's ready to take on Mackinac.

Wilkins is one of 10 crewmen who will race with the Knee Deep out of Ohio along the shore course, along with boat owners Brett and Katie Langolf.

Wilkins says he was on a boat probably before he could even walk.

"I've been around water my whole life from when I was a young kid," he says. "In Port Huron, you're right next to the water, so you got to get on it at some point whether it's pleasure or competitive."

In high school, Wilkins began crewing with the Port Huron Yacht Club. This is his 13th Port Huron to Mackinac Race.

"It's the pinnacle of the summer," says Wilkins "It's the pinnacle of Port Huron summer, you know, with the Blue Water Festival going on at the same time. It's nice to have people in town."

"The whole experience keeps me coming back," says Wilkins.

Race Chair Trish Smotherman says she has been involved with the Port Huron to Mackinac Race in one way or another since 1992.

"We draw sailors from all over the Great Lakes, not just the east coast of Michigan," Smotherman says. "For that very reason, one of our charitable partners this year is the Alliance for the Great Lakes.  We've also supported Set Sail for Autism for the past four or five years, but we thought it important to support the health of our Great Lakes, that very resource on which we depend for this great sport of sailboat racing."

Dave Werner, another participant in the Mackinac race did not grow up around water and had only been on a boat a few times, which he always enjoyed, before his friends Paul and Dorothy Latham invited him to compete in a race with them on their boat the Engager.

"The first time I went racing, it was like there was blood in the water," says Werner. "I thought, 'Yeah, let's do THAT.'"

Werner grew up in Lansing and attended Michigan State University to study packaging in the business school.

"I always had an interest in sailing and in college I had a couple of elective credits left and decided to take a Great Lakes Sailing course, which was just the basics and not actual racing."

Werner now races on a boat called Major Details, owned by Bill Vogan of William Vogan Architects. This is his 15th year in the Port Huron to Mackinac race, and he and his team will sail the longer course.

Werner races all summer long in certain regattas and other distance races, where you can participate in racing heats several times a day. But he loves the time it takes to get to Mackinac.

"All the different things you have to do to move through the water with no engine--it's pretty relaxing," says Werner.  "From Port Huron to Mackinac, all you're focused on is the race--you can't go to the store to pick up milk, can't work or worry about email, unless you have your phone, but all you can focus on is the competition."

The race is just that--a race. There is no stopping. The finish line is the Iroquois Hotel on Mackinac Island. The excursion ends with an awards party.

The key sponsor of the race is Bell's Brewery, one of Michigan's most celebrated brewing companies. Even Bell's owner, Larry Bell, partakes in the race, and this year is no different. He will be aboard the boat Details.

"This is my 6th year on Details," says Bell. "The Bayview Yacht Club has allowed the lead sponsor to put a person on a boat. Details is one of the big boats that take the long course, and I am doing jobs that the younger guys do, since I'm a newbie, and I'm grinding [a grinder is a crew member on a yacht whose duties include operating manual winches that raise and trim the sails and move the boom] and whatever else is needed. It's really exciting."

Growing up in Illinois farmland, Bell didn't really have access to water or to sailing, but he is enjoying it now.

"Always viewed it as the iconic sailboat race of Michigan, and even beyond that in that it is an iconic Michigan event that we have that other states don't because of the Great Lakes,"says Bell.

Every year, Bell looks forward to one moment during the race more than others.

"It's usually Sunday morning,"he says. "Details takes the long course, and it's when we get to the buoy and make the turn. Everyone's gotta go around the buoy, and you see everyone come together. It's a real ‘all hands on deck' moment, and it's important to get right."

Bell's Brewery is a pioneer of the craft beer industry in Michigan. What first began as a home brewing supply store in 1983 has risen to being the first brewery to sell beer on-site thanks to integral legislation in 1993; to being named this year by the American Brewing Association to not only having the No. 1 Top-Ranked Beer in Two Hearted Ale, but also to being named the Best Brewery. 

Both Werner and Wilkins say the race isn't always smooth sailing, and have experienced a couple of close calls out on the water.

"There are always storms," Wilkins recalls. "Two years ago, there was significant storm, with wind, rain, and we took our sails down and drifted through it.  Il Mostro, with Ken Reed, had their canvas up and was barreling 20 knots underneath us and came pretty close to crashing into us."

Werner had an instance where a forestay snapped on them and the team almost lost the mast. The forestay is a piece of equipment that keeps the mast from falling backward.

"We managed to keep the rig stabilized," he said. "But it was a big deal. Last year, there were a fair number of storms during the race. When you're racing, there's no place to go. You just have to deal with it. The last storm we faced, we went right through the middle of it. To go either side would have taken too long and been off course, not sure what conditions we would or would not get, just went straight through. It seemed to pay off. Got good wind, but not damaging, came through no problem. Sailing is a very humbling sport."

The race typically takes about two days to complete.

Overall the race is celebrated as a long-standing tradition that dates back to 1925 and 12 boats to the spectacle it is now. More than 200 vessels are entered in this year’s race, which proves to yet again bring prosperity to the Port Huron area.

"There is, of course, an economic impact on the east coast of Michigan, particularly in the Port Huron area." says Smotherman.  "But there is also an economic impact on northern and western Michigan as well, the result of boats traveling to their respective home harbors or vacation homes after the race has concluded."

Bell concurs that things are pretty stable with the way that the race is set up.

"We have a great racing chair in Trish Smotherman, and I think their committee is doing a great job finding some consensus in rules, in the course. There's a steadiness there, and racers like to be able to count on what's going to happen. It's in good shape."

Whatever the economic impact the race has on the state, the racers are glad to be a part of it.

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